Real Work: Is it time to get up yet?

By 2010, most of us will work from home. But have we got the discipline to succeed? EMMA COOK reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Working from home isn't everyone's cup of tea. One worker's freedom is another's prison sentence. In my case, it felt like maximum security. Prison was one room: a bedroom which doubled as an office. I slowly felt my office equipment was conspiring against me; my first sight each morning was a black computer screen - taunting me that I'd spent far too long in bed. At night, watching TV, my fax machine would churn away while my answering machine would bleep and chatter. Whenever I ignored them, I would be racked with guilt. Then there was the other sort of guilt; somehow I should have made better use of my time. As I told myself, there was scope to start a second business, get involved in charity, even pay my bills on time. Sometimes it was a physical achievement to drag myself to the local shop. Invariably I'd be stuck to my computer from morning onwards, wearing last night's make-up and an old dressing gown.

So it comes as a great relief that I don't work for British Telecom, since it is persuading 7,000 of its staff to work from home. In its enthusiasm to get staff out of their offices, BT is even offering grants of pounds 650 to cover the costs of office furniture and equipment. Many staff will be jubilant, of course; no more wasted hours in overcrowded trains. More quality time with children and hours devoted to leisure pursuits. Home working offers the fantasy of self-fulfilment. Which is handy because, according to the Henley Centre, more than 50 percent of the workforce will be working from home by 2010. In their wisdom, however, employers have decided that only certain sorts of people should be handed the keys to working freedom. Not people like me, presumably, who enjoy human interaction and an excuse to dress each morning.

The Co-Op Bank has also been piloting teleworking schemes for the past two years and employees have been vetted rigorously; they have had to pass interviews as well as psychometric tests.

Joanne Bland, 32, who took part in the Co-Op Bank scheme, was identified as a suitable candidate. "They wanted to find out if I was self-motivated or whether I relied on others. There were questions like, 'If you were at a party would you initiate contact or wait until somebody approached you'." But is it the wallflowers or the sociable self-starters who will flourish at home? The wallflowers, according to occupational psychologist Stanley Thorley, are likely to be more cut out for the job. "To work from home you've got to be slightly introverted as well as having the ability to concentrate," says Thorley. Perhaps he should add an inability to become paranoid about falling off the career ladder along with a natural disdain for daytime TV.

Joanne, a bank supervisor, clearly fulfilled the Co-Op Bank's standards of commitment and was allowed to work from home for six months. She didn't find the experience particularly fulfilling. "I missed the interaction at work. I felt like a hamster in a cage, doing the same tasks each day. Working on my own was boring." Homeworkers need a high level of self-confidence, as it is easy to feel left out. As Joanne says, "You don't find out about any opportunities at work or anything that's going on. The ones who get on are in contact with other people, supervisors and managers."

It does, however, depend on how much supervision is offered to homeworkers. Ian Jackson, who works for the BT consultancy team advising on their new scheme, says, "You can have a very good team spirit, communicating with each other every day and meeting up regularly." Jackson, who also works from home, says BT has a strong internet and e-mailing network and it's very easy to stay in touch with staff and current gossip. As he is also a father, Jackson is naturally enthusiastic about the flexibility home- working offers. Since he's been at home, he says, his wife has been able to re-train and continue her career. Later he breaks our discussion with an apology that he must do the school run. This is just the sort of balance, he says, that other homeworkers can enjoy. It also sounds ideal for mothers who want to combine work and family.

Still, you can't help thinking that employers are getting it all ways: selecting committed workers and keeping their company overheads to a minimum. Surely this is more of a consideration than the workers' well-being. Jackson says it is "not about throwing people out of buildings but using our offices more efficiently".

Dr Wayne Cascio, management professor at the University of Colorado, has written extensively on the subject, and believes that there must be "strict guidelines" to working from home. "The employees shouldn't be new to the position. They must show eagerness and enthusiasm. They must also be available to answer the phone between, say, nine to five and then be available for video conferencing between other set times." Cascio stresses, "Working from home is not for everyone."

What employers overlook is that left to your own devices laziness is less of a problem than obsessive commitment and residual guilt, especially if their ideal candidates tend to be disciplined self-starters anyway. It can be extremely difficult to switch off and separate domestic and work life. Becky, 31, a PR consultant and now happily ensconced in the office, says of her freelancing years: "I exhausted myself. I could never stop thinking about my work."

Work became far more of a focus because she couldn't leave it behind in an office. Commuters may moan about frustrating journeys but psychologically it's key to leaving work issues behind and enjoying a home life - and visa versa. "I think I was more paranoid than I've ever been," says Becky. "I'd either be manically productive or feel depressed and ignored."

BT may tell its workers otherwise but there is no substitute for a (good) office environment for at least part of your working life, even if it's just to put things in perspective. As Becky says, "It's nice to hear someone laugh. And it's also comforting to see someone having a worse day than you."